Trumpeters and Young Girls Dancing, 1431-1438. Images via
The consecration of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore on March 25, 1436, must have been, even by Renaissance standards, a day of unrivalled spectacle and splendor. The jeweled vestments of Pope Eugene IV dazzled alongside the glittering garments of the Medici retinue. Brunelleschi’s dome resounded with polyphony by Guillaume Du Fay and the inimitable organ improvisations of maestro Antonio Squarcialupi. The maestro would have had his choice of grand instruments: the one above the south sacristy door housed in a marble loft decorated by Donatello or the one in the north sacristy decorated by Luca della Robbia. Three of the latter’s marble panels form the core of “Make a Joyful Noise,” a small exhibition of pieces traveling during a renovation of the cathedral museum.
Considered along with Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, and Ghiberti to be one of the five founders of Florentine Renaissance art, Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482) secured his reputation with the cathedral’s Cantoria, or “singing gallery” as the organ loft was known. Della Robbia worked for most of the 1430s to carve the Cantoria’s ten relief panels, its decorative pilasters, and the Latin inscription taken from Psalm 150. The Cantoria shows della Robbia moving from tentative and cautious to progressively more ambitious groups of young, primarily male singers and instrumentalists. Although he worked in a representational style, della Robbia mixed the realities of Renaissance performance practice with an idealized classical aesthetic. As he grew more confident, della Robbia even pushed the boundaries of decorum, integrating female figures into his compositions and depicting secular instruments in what would have been a strictly liturgical setting.
Documentary evidence shows that in 1435 after completing four panels, della Robbia received an increase in compensation from his employer, the Opera del Duomo, a secular institution in charge of construction, maintenance, and administration for the cathedral. Having gained the confidence of the operai (officers of the Opera), della Robbia could spend more time on the panels and introduce greater ingenuity in his compositions. Of the three panels on display here, Boys Singing From a Book (early 1430s) represents della Robbia’s earliest efforts. Five boys in draped tunics sing with expressive faces while two angels in low relief listen attentively, making the point that music appreciation is just as important as performance. In his catalogue essay, the art historian Gary Radke notes that with this composition and the similar panel Boys Singing From a Scroll (not seen in the exhibition), della Robbia leaves behind the juvenile putti of the elder Donatello and follows his own impeccable style, one that masterfully balances the energy and exuberance of youth with grace and congeniality.
Boys Singing from a Book, 1431-1438
In Boys Singing With Organ, Harp, and Lute (mid 1430s), della Robbia conceived an innovative composition with nine figures and three meticulously-detailed musical instruments. Here, the illusion of depth is contrived through a skillful molding of deeply-excavated legs and densely-placed, interlocking figures. Della Robbia’s handling of the musical instruments is particularly remarkable. In the foreground, a seated boy pushes the buttons of a portable organ with his right hand while he works the bellows with his left; each of the organ’s twenty pipes have been hollowed out to a realistic depth. At the right, a stocky-legged boy plays a lute of four double and single drone strings. Immediately behind him, another boy plucks a twenty-pegged harp. The result is an extraordinarily vivid image of harmony and companionship.
Trumpeters and Young Girls Dancing (late 1430s) is a tour de force of relief carving. Della Robbia renders a complex scene of ten figures: some playing trumpets, others cavorting. While two children merrily dance, hair flying and linen tunics bouncing, two others help to hold up three long trumpets. The trumpeters are hard at work, their cheeks puffed out with the effort. As Radke observes, the balance of “energy and composure” in this panel demonstrates della Robbia’s characteristic reconciliation of Roman idealism and humanist realism.
Also included in the exhibition are three examples of the kind of elaborate choirbooks produced in Florence in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. In her fascinating catalogue essay, the musicology professor Marica Tacconi describes the collaborative nature of manuscript production, which could take years as each specialist—parchment-preparer, scribe, illuminator, bookbinder, goldsmith, silk merchant—completed his respective task. As Tacconi notes, Florence’s new cathedral served as a symbol of the city, and everything associated with it had to epitomize all that was the finest in luxury and opulence—well-thumbed choirbooks from the thirteenth century simply would not do. The resulting campaign to replace the psalters, graduals, and antiphonals with aesthetically appropriate manuscripts led to the creation of some forty-one choirbooks by 1526. Because these books were designed primarily as commemorations of particular events or religious festivals, the artisans took creative license, omitting musical notes or changing dates to coincide with feast days. The cathedral’s new choirbooks were indeed surpassingly beautiful, but frequently the old ones had to be brought out to conduct a proper Mass.
Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (Italian, 1433-1484). Illuminated Manuscript (Choir Book)
Also in the exhibition is a late sixteenth-century lectern from the Florence Baptistery, made from walnut wood. This nine-foot-tall lectern is carved in the grotesque style and would have held four massive choirbooks for display or for singers to use during Mass. This particular example protected several choirbooks during the catastrophic 1966 Arno River flood.
It is a rare privilege to see works such as these at eye level, especially della Robbia’s marble panels which, in situ, would have been far out of sight. Photographs of the accompanying Cantoria by Donatello hint at the more riotous and decorative approach taken by della Robbia’s rival. Maybe the next renovation of the cathedral museum will allow us to view the dueling Cantorie side-by-side.
“Make a Joyful Noise”: Renaissance Art and Music in Florence Cathedral is on view at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia through January 11, 2015.
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by Michael Pepi
Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing (1911)
Egon Schiele’s brief but prolific life followed a modernist arc we know all too well. The precocious adolescent enrolls in an academy, only to revolt against its conservative traditions. After becoming a protégé to a contemporary master (Gustav Klimt), he soon forms a splinter group with like-minded cronies. Steadily shocking the establishment with a bohemian lifestyle and indecent pictures, he befriends an influential critic who connects him with prominent collectors. Rising out of a truly revolutionary milieu around Austria’s cultural capital, he was called to served in World War I, just as he began to show in earnest around Europe. He accepted an invitation to join the Vienna Secession (and organize its forty-ninth exhibition). Fitting with Schiele’s grandiose self-image, this whirlwind of activity occurred in all of about ten years. Schiele was dead at age twenty-eight, succumbing in 1918 to the spanish influenza that killed his second wife days before.
In “Egon Schiele: Portraits,” the curator Alessandra Comini focuses on portraiture—the artist’s preferred genre—to make the case for Schiele’s singular mark upon the development of Modernism in Europe. The exhibition features some of the foremost examples of Schiele’s inventive, formally daring, and often perverse (even by today’s standards) figures. The show is divided up by the source of his sitters. “Family and the Academy” reflects his troubled childhood and the stringent pedagogy at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste. Here we see Schiele’s early formal training (Schiele had been obsessed with drawing as a child) contrasted with a late portrait of his father-in-law Johann Harms, perhaps his most painterly work. Schiele depicted his young artistic circle with a verve and curiosity that set him apart. At the age of twenty, he portrayed three fellow artists in the Neukunstgruppe—the group that he and fellow students formed in protest of the academy—in three different works, one of which is Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovšek (1910). In these works, Schiele fully developed his characteristic style. In Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovšek (1910), we see an arresting psychological projection onto the distorted anatomy of the sitter. Zakovšek’s body, slouching with an elongated and asymmetrical shoulder, is suspended on a blank background, characteristic of Schiele’s distinctive style and a marked departure from his training.
Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovšek (1910), via
In his writing, Schiele refers to his work as an attempt to differentiate between the painter who merely “looks” and the one who truly “sees.” His “pathological” depictions were part of this conceit: to unravel the essence beneath the societal constructions that burdened his sitters. In the pre-war years, Schiele is completely unphased by propriety. Schiele’s overly erotic and fantastical portrayals of lovers, numerous models (some purportedly minors), and himself were continued attempts to grasp the inner nature of his rotating set of subjects. In April of 1912, Schiele was arrested and briefly imprisoned on charges of immorality connected with his work with children. This marked a turning point in Schiele’s life that is trenchantly documented by a separate room in the exhibition containing several works completed in jail.
Though he often worked in isolation, Schiele’s success brought him into contact with rarefied elements of bourgeois society, specifically a commission to portray the children of the wealthy Lederer family. Comini includes several works from this commission, including two portraits of the fifteen-year-old Erich Lederer, where we begin to see Schiele apply what would become his signature style to an objectively rendered subject after its own likeness. Comini suggests that these are among the works from a period marking Schiele’s passage from an interest in the underlying cognitive or emotional essence of his sitters towards the sociological environs of his subjects, a change hastened further by the artist’s later encounters with war and marriage. Another work illustrating this transition is his large portrait of his second wife, Edith, where the emphasis lies not in an eroticized shimmer of a human form but in the colorful dress that covers an otherwise staid version of his young wife. The Family (1918), one of his last works, anticipates his unborn child and Edith together in a nude scene. The heavily worked background and foreground suggests a domestic scene, again less interested in the raw subject than their new environs. Edith died of influenza six months into the pregnancy.
The Family (1918)
As much as the work on display showcases Schiele’s radical vision, it risks isolating him from the related departures that defined the Viennese avant-garde. Schiele’s formal inventions did not appear out of nowhere. Such context is laid out in detail in the exhibition catalogue but perhaps overlooked in the galleries themselves. A trip downstairs to the Neue Galerie’s rotating permanent collection, however, provides first-hand links to the visual language from which Schiele emerged. Namely we see the elongation of the human form already present in the fin-de-siècle work of George Minne, shown in Kneeling Youth (1898). The sketches of Gustav Klimt, the distortions of Oskar Kokoschka and Alfred Kubin: Schiele’s visual language and use of allegorical portraits were very much creatures of the art nouveau environment and avant-garde fashions of his day.
Kneeling Youth (1898), via
Even museum exhibitions as tightly focused as “Egon Schiele: Portraits” can smuggle in a bold thesis. At the least, we’re provided a penetrating lens with which to see Schiele as he was received during his short yet forceful life. So what was Schiele’s special contribution to European Modernism? Portraiture was already showing signs of crumbling away from the genteel conditions of its patronage. And the second decade of the twentieth century was not short on bold formal experimentation. Perhaps the answer lies in a striking portrait of the painter Max Oppenheimer. Schiele isolates his subject in the empty field of vision, with economical yet nervous gestures, confining him to starkly cut positive space. Oppenheimer’s head and tortuous hands do the majority of the work to orient the wispy frame as it cascades down like some geological formation. It is without peer. The ground may have been well set for a precocious and anxious talent, though few could predict the ultimate manner in which Schiele employed his own uncompromising method with ambitious representations of his circle.
Egon Schiele: Portraits is on view at the Neue Galerie, New York, from October 9, 2014 through January 19, 2015.
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Jackie Meier, Midnight Moon (2010), via. Her work will be featured at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery
Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.
This week: Holiday standards, massive booklists, and artists discussing oppression.
Fiction: The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami (Knopf): More magical realism, but this time, illustrated! A young boy’s day at the public library takes a dark turn in this short novel. Led by a sinister librarian into the bowels of the library, the boy meets a mute young girl and a servant wearing the skin of a sheep, who makes him doughnuts while relaying the librarian’s sadistic scheme. Together the three must plot their escape. —CE
Nonfiction: The Mother of All Booklists: The 500 Most Recommended Nonfiction Reads for Ages 3 to 103, by William Patrick Martin (Rowman & Littlefield): As publishers churn out title after title, readers are being hit from all sides with recommended reading and book award lists from newspapers, libraries, and institutions. Keeping up with these lists is near impossible, but, lucky for us, William Patrick Martin has compiled over a hundred of them into a single compendium: The Mother of All Booklists. Broken into five age groups, this encyclopedic volume gives a brief summary of each of the five hundred selected books, along with reasons why it is worth your time. The selections are sourced from an “army of critics.” –RH
Poetry: Headwaters: Poems, by Ellen Bryant Voigt (W.W. Norton): A National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Ellen Bryant Voigt is a masterful lyric poet. Her eighth volume of poems seeks the transcendent amid loss, as through her verses she grapples with the death of her mother. Through flowing descriptions of both human and animal lives, Voigt’s poems acknowledge sorrow but embrace adaptation. —CE
Art: 21 and Counting: The Painting Center turns 21 (through December 20), Janet Kurnatowski Gallery: 10 Year Anniversary Celebration (through December 21), and Andre Zarre Gallery: 40th Anniversary Exhibition (through January 24): This week brings us three anniversary group shows. The Painting Center celebrates its success in promoting contemporary painting, Janet Kurnatowski recognizes the tenth year of her gallery, and the venerable Andre Zarre Gallery turns forty. —JP
Music: Handel’s Messiah (December 17-21): In the musical desert that is the holiday season in New York, sacred music stands out as a glittering refuge from carols and pops concerts. Manhattan's historic Trinity Church on Wall Street, which offers some of the most robust musical programming of any church in New York, this week continues its annual tradition of presenting Handel's Messiah. One performance will be offered at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday, but Trinity's offering is best experienced at their home downtown, in one of the city's most beautiful spaces. —ECS
Other: Can We Be Silent? Artists on Prejudice and Persecution (92nd Street Y, December 17): Moderated by Hanna Arie-Gaifman, director of the 92nd Street Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts, the violinist Gidon Kremer, the pianist András Schiff, and the writer Assaf Gavron discuss the responsibilities of artists in the face of social injustice. —CE
From the archive: Waiting for the golden pig, by Eric Ormsby: On the Christmas season in the Czech capital.
From our latest issue: The outdoor kid, by Stefan Beck: Revisting John Muir's adventures in the wilderness on the 100th anniversary of his death.
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The Strasbourg clock, Isaac Habrecht, 1589
The British, like the Americans, know a great deal about German history—all twelve years of it. The objects assembled at the British Museum, many of which are of considerable artistic merit, bring home to visitors how very narrow their knowledge is. The exhibition begins with pieces from the glorious reunification of Germany in 1989, and indicates how very fragmented the country has been for most of its history. In 1700, Britain had a single currency, but Germany had close to 200, with every local ruler—from the great electors and the imperial princes to individual dukes, counts, margraves, bishops, cities and abbeys—issuing its own coinage. It is perhaps ironic that now most of Europe except Britain has one single currency, and it is controlled by Germany, the economic master of the Eurozone.
Germany was for a long while a nation with very vague boundaries. Basel (now in Switzerland), Strasburg (now in France) and Prague (now in the Czech Republic) were all thoroughly German cities within the Holy Roman Empire. Strasburg with its great Gothic cathedral and important publishing industry, was a core German city, a free city of the Empire. Prague was the home of the oldest German university in Europe, and a major center of German culture and science. This map of a past Germany enables the curators to display a variety of objects from Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous Portrait of Erasmus (1523)—painted at the time when both he and his sitter were in Basel—to a woodcut of Franz Kafka—a graduate of the German university in Prague—to show how broad the German lands had once been.
Lady With a Squirrel and a Starling (1526-28), Hans Holbein the Younger
Holbein, a German artist from Augsburg, brought Renaissance standards of realism to England with his painting Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1526-28). The very plain, long-nosed woman is characteristically English, but according to the curators, her squirrel and her apparel were imported via the London office of the Hanseatic League, the same route by which Protestant books and ideas entered Britain. The Hanseatic cities were a voluntary commercial federation with a single currency, led by Hamburg and Lübeck, that dominated the trade of Northern Europe. England was just a country at the periphery, importing its more sophisticated artifacts, artists, and ideas from Germany, a more advanced country at the heart of Europe.
On display in the exhibition is a Gutenberg Bible from 1455, proof that modern printing with movable metal type and oil-based inks is a German invention, and a form far more sophisticated than that known earlier in China and Korea. It took two-and-a-half years to set up the first Bible, but afterward, the press could turn out 180 volumes in the time it would have taken a scribe to produce a single copy. Yet the Bible on display still has the old, colorful pages we associate with medieval manuscripts. Each copy of the early printed bibles was beautifully and individually illustrated according to the wishes of its particular purchaser. There was still an independent role for the individual artist, and the prospective reader could make aesthetic choices.
A page from the Gutenberg Bible. via The British Library Board
The invention of the printing press and its rapid spread through Germany were a precursor to today’s Frankfurt book fair, just as the clocks of Strasburg, the knives and swords of Solingen, and the early but precise scientific instruments in the exhibition point towards the way in which Germany today, as it did in 1910, dominates world trade in sophisticated, well-designed manufactured goods. This economic dominance would have occurred much earlier but for German disunity and the periodic invasions by its neighbors, notably during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when Germany lost between one third and one half of its population. The depredations of the French devastated Germany from Louis XIV onwards. These traumas were succeeded by the invasions of Napoleon in the early 1800s. He conquered the German states, controlled most of them, and subordinated the rest.
This total humiliation led to a growth in German consciousness, and a wish to become a single, unified people. One of the ways in which these intense feelings were expressed was through the Romantic Movement’s strong attachment to the German landscape, particularly its rugged mountains and dense forests. The freedom of the wild was a substitute for having free institutions, and even today the Germans have an attachment to nature that amounts to a national fetish. Germany’s love of its ancient oak forests is founded on the idea that they are the very groves from which the German tribal leader, Arminius, emerged to ambush and destroy the Roman legions of Publius Quinctilius Varus in 9 AD. In the British Museum exhibition, the equation of nation and tree is expressed through the paintings of Karl Gustav Carus, a follower of the more famous Casper David Friedrich. The trees in Carus’s Oaks by the Sea (1834-35) are rugged but bare at their tops. Like Germany after Napoleon, they are battered survivors who will soon flourish again. Every leaf is executed with tremendous care and beyond the trees lies the way to the open sea.
Oaks by the Sea (1834-35), Karl Gustav Carus
The later, tragic years of twentieth-century Germany are summed up in three objects: the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp in eastern Germany (one of the first and largest of the camps), Ernst Barlach’s war memorial from Güstrow cathedral, and an ordinary wooden farm cart. Each has a tangled story attached.
A quarter of a million prisoners passed through Buchenwald and a quarter of them died, either through murder or as a result of severe ill-treatment. On the gates of the camp the Nazis inscribed the motto Jedem des seine, meaning “to each his own,” or “to each what he deserves.” Yet the gate incorporated a subtle act of resistance. The SS had ordered a Buchenwald prisoner, Franz Ehrlich, to design the letters of the sign on the camp gate. Knowing that the Nazis detested the Bauhaus but knew little about it, Ehrlich, who was Bauhaus-trained, selected lettering closely associated with the by then banned and persecuted institution. Thus, the form of the sign undermines its message.
In 1926, Ernst Barlach designed a hovering angel suspended from above as a WWI memorial for the Protestant cathedral in Güstrow, in eastern Germany. It expresses not heroism, but the sorrow of those who remained after the war: the angel is a spirit floating high above the earth, seeking those who tragically lost their lives in battle. Not surprisingly, this memorial enraged the Nazis: when they came to power it was melted down and the metal was used for armaments. However, the original plaster cast remained intact, and a second version was later made and installed in the Antoniter Church, the first Protestant church in Cologne, to memorialize the dead of both world wars. The impoverished cathedral in Güstrow, which was now located in the very un-Christian Communist East Germany, had no resources with which to replace its angel, but, in the 1950s, the church in Cologne generously made a second copy and presented it to them. And now it is in the British Museum, on loan to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, that insane conflict that devastated both countries. Curiously, the statue seems even more moving in the London exhibition than in its home in Güstrow, since it is better lit and can be seen in isolation. Skill in display has triumphed over genuineness of context, but one needs to know the full story.
Der Schwebende (The Hovering), 1926, Ernst Barlach, via.
The cart in the exhibition is practical, simple, and unadorned; one that would have been used for conveying vegetables and other farm produce. Yet for Germans, the vehicle is iconic: a ‘refugee cart,’ one of those pulled by the dispossessed Germans fleeing from the advancing Soviet army in 1945. Fourteen million Germans fled or were forced to leave historic German provinces, and the cities where they had lived for hundreds of years. It was the biggest forced population movement in history, and when they had re-settled in West Germany, the former refugees kept their carts as a memory of how they had survived those harsh times.
Some might say that the British Museum exhibition is too big and too disjointed, but it is entirely appropriate for a country whose history has been filled with contrasts and sudden change. Unity and fragmentation have periodically replaced one another. So have times of peace and achievement and episodes of total destruction. Germany’s is an impossibly incoherent history to tell solely with objects, but is rumored that the curator, the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor, a man who speaks German with a better accent than he does English, is going to do well for being responsible for this exhibition. His good friend Dr. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is said to be considering making him her key cultural adviser.
Germany: Memories of a Nation; A 600-year History in Objects opened at the British Museum in London on October 16, 2014, and will be on view through January 25, 2015.
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by James Bowman
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty
As Charles Lane points out in today’s Washington Post, the biggest of the many problems that the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture revealed about American security services may be the one that hardly anyone is talking about: namely, that security itself has become irrevocably politicized. The CIA, I fear, cannot avoid its share of blame for this, in view of its own history of leaking and briefing against elected authority during the Bush years. But the biggest share of the blame must accrue to the Senate Democrats who have allowed themselves to become captives of the anti-American left. They in turn are egged on by the media, whom the Democrats know they can trust not to moderate their treatment of the report as a scandal by any mention of the partisan nature of the conclusions drawn. Now we know that there is nothing in our public life, not even national security, that can be treated as being above partisanship.
Democratic politics is founded on the principle that reasonable people are bound to differ about as many things in the public sphere as they do in the private, enough that it is necessary to devise political mechanisms for the peaceful and rational resolution of these differences in order that the government of their country may be carried out. Majority rule is the chief of these mechanisms, but that machinery won’t work unless there is also respect for the rights of minorities, since minorities have a habit of turning into majorities and vice versa. This respect of the majority for the minority takes many forms, all of which have come under assault during the Obama years, conceived as they were in a messianic fervor that expected its majority to be permanent. It’s ironic, then, that just as this expectation would seem to have been definitively disappointed, the soon-to-be minority Democrats have lashed out with the worst example yet of majority arrogance.
The patriotic principle of bipartisanship in foreign policy has never been set down in any document or list of rules, but it has been fundamental to the conduct of war and diplomacy since the foundation of the republic. We may disagree about what policies serve or don’t serve the national interest, but we have always been as one in the understanding that the national interest must be paramount. That is no longer the case. Democrats since the anti-war movement of the 1960s have been prone to abandon such patriotism in favor of what they regard as a higher loyalty to universal moral or ideological principles, though they usually make the cant claim that these constitute the “true” patriotism. In the same spirit, they now release as a “report” what is in fact the purest propaganda, condemning those in the security apparatus on partial and tendentiously chosen evidence, gathered without even the pretense of bipartisan truth-seeking.
They can justify such patently corrupt behavior to themselves because unlimited partisanship has taught them that they must be in the right, just as those they now see as having served not their country but their political enemies must be in the wrong. That’s also how they manage to exonerate themselves from any blame, when in fact they were complicit from the beginning in the actions they now condemn. But the media doesn't notice this because it has adopted the same anti-patriotic, moralistic approach to political life. In the media, as in Democratic talking points, reasonable people may no longer be permitted to differ. All questions of national security, as of other political matters, must be reduced to right and wrong, good and evil, “science” and ignorance. Accordingly, the media not only won’t report the intellectual corruption of the left; they can’t even recognize it when they see it.
Mr. Lane is likely to find that complaining of the inevitably disastrous effects that will ensue upon this politicization of national security will get him dismissed as a “torture apologist.” As always, politics has to be represented as being about good guys (the highly moral anti-patriots) and bad guys (those who supposedly sink to the terrorists’ “level” by putting their country first) and not about—as Hillary Clinton put it in her laughably mistitled memoir—“Hard Choices.” It’s just because the choices are hard that small-d democrats must recognize that they owe a certain forbearance to those who have made different ones. The capital-d Democrats in their moralistic fever have forgotten this fundamental principle of working democracy, but they get away with it because the media has abandoned its own task of acting as a check on the otherwise unchecked power of the majority—at least so long as their own allies are in the majority. It’s a nice question as to which of these forms of corruption is worse.
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It was late: 8:15. Yuja Wang’s recital at Carnegie Hall was supposed to start at 8—which in New York concert terms means 8:05. Was the young Chinese pianist fashionably late or more like strangely late, or rudely late?
She certainly had a great program to play. It would begin with Schubert songs, arranged by Liszt. Then move to one of Schubert’s late, great sonatas: the one in A major, D. 959.
After intermission, we could get a slew of Scriabin pieces, ending with the “Black Mass” Sonata. To close the program—printed program (not taking encores into account)—would be Balakirev’s delightful, fiendish warhorse, Islamey.
Two nights before in this hall, Daniil Trifonov had played his own recital. He and Wang are probably the two most sensational young pianists before the public today. Was it a mere coincidence that their Carnegie recitals were scheduled in such close succession? If so, that was quite a coincidence.
Wang played in this hall last month, too: in partnership with Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist. I’m afraid I left after the first half, unable to take anymore. The playing was shockingly bad. Musical feeling was absent. I address this recital, or half of it, in my next “chronicle,” for the magazine.
As the lights dimmed last night, the friend sitting next to me proposed a bet: How short would Yuja’s dress be? I thought hip level, approximately. In other words, scarcely a dress at all. My friend thought ankle length.
We both won, in a way: Wang came out in a dress that was long on one side but slit on the other—all the way up. This was the side, naturally, facing the audience, as she played. She was essentially naked onstage. The dress was another example of her “stripper-wear,” as I have called it.
Let not this failure of taste distract from a fact: the fact of Wang’s greatness.
Her first Schubert-Liszt song was “Liebesbotschaft,” from Schwanengesang. It was rippling and gorgeous. The pianist floated across the keys. She gave a demonstration of pure horizontality. The piano was no longer a percussion instrument.
How does she do this? And can anyone else now playing do it? Jean-Yves Thibaudet?
In the two other songs, she was much the same. She was crystalline, sensitive, and musical. She was utterly composed, with hands and mind in balance. If there was a fault, it was this: Some phrases required a fuller tone, a tone with more body. Wang was occasionally wispy.
She began the sonata—D. 959—deep into the keys. She made a robust, masculine sound, and yet one that was warm. This was exactly the right sound. And she played the rest of the first movement with unwavering intelligence. I thought, “This is a true Schubertian, a true musician.”
I also thought of a game: Say the pianist sitting before us were not a brash girl in stripper-wear but an antique, venerable Austro-German Meister. What would we think then? Would we be in awe? Do we mark this pianist down because of her youth and appearance?
The second movement, Andantino, was gripping. That is because it was perfectly paced. (At least that is a major reason.) Wang showed impeccable judgment.
And I had this thought: “Cameras were onstage to film that joint recital with Kavakos. What a waste. That recital should be allowed to die. But where are they now, those cameras?”
Schubert’s third movement is the Scherzo, that sprightly, dancing, leaping thing. Never was it more sprightly than in Wang’s hands. And she can leap in time. What I mean is, her technique is so good, she does not have to alter the rhythm, as she leaps. More mortal pianists make little adjustments to account for their limitations.
Accuracy is not everything in this movement, or in this sonata. But once you’ve heard it played accurately, you think, “This is better, now that you mention it. Accurate is better than not.”
In the final movement, Wang captured Schubert’s Gemütlichkeit, his smile, his peaceableness. And once more, she demonstrated her amazing legato, that seemingly impossible horizontality.
I have a question, and I mean it in earnest: Piano idols like Kempff, Serkin, and Brendel—did they not employ such a legato because they didn’t want to or because they couldn’t?
In her Scriabin, Wang was alert, immaculate, and poetic. She and this composer are pretty much made for each other. Outstanding was “Etrangeté,” the second of Scriabin’s Two Poems, Op. 63. It was impish, spiky, and mysterious.
How about the “Black Mass”? I have one main criticism, which applies to some of the rest of Wang’s Scriabin: It would have benefited from more intensity—submerged intensity. Buried intensity. The sense of an underlying anxiety. But, listen, it was awfully good.
Islamey, you have heard many times, probably, and so have I. What was different about Wang’s? Its intricacy, its nimbleness, its clarity. Its freakish accuracy. You could have written the score down from this playing. That’s how clear it was. At the same time, the piece had its due excitement.
Happily, there was a string of encores, basically Wang’s regulars: the Schubert-Liszt “Gretchen am Spinnrade”; the Horowitz Carmen Variations; the Tatum version of “Tea for Two”; etc. “Gretchen” built, movingly. “Tea for Two” swung, thrillingly. Has any American ever played it more idiomatically than this Chinese girl, who came to our shores as a teenager?
I’m not sure I have the courage to say how good this piano recital was. Everyone likes to wait for a safe consensus, even the boldest of us. Far better to hail a pianist when she is old and creaking—or, better yet, dead—than when she is young and brash.
But, honestly, the musicality we heard last night was as rare as the technique. I can’t think of a single lapse of taste, in two hours of playing, and the playing of a diversity of music, at that. As I was leaving, a fellow critic said to me, “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t been here.”
Believe it. Yuja Wang is more than a flashy pianist baring her bod. She gave the recital of a pianist with a deep, probably innate understanding of music.
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As the lights dimmed last night, I was talking to a pair of musician friends sitting in front of me. “We’ve never heard him play,” they said. I replied, “He makes beautiful sounds, especially when quiet. He is subtle, nuanced—a colorist and caresser. Where he has trouble is in making a big, substantial sound. He is not very bold.”
About three seconds after that, he began the evening with a crashing G-minor chord. And was plenty bold after that. Never have I been contradicted—shown up—so quickly.
The fellow in question was Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian pianist. He played a recital in Carnegie Hall. And he began with a rarity, or at least a very old-fashioned piece: Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in G Minor, BWV 542, transcribed by Liszt.
After that crashing chord, the fantasy portion of the piece was gorgeous. (So was the chord—deep into the keys.) It was liberally pedaled and blurred. That was all right: Trifonov wasn’t playing a Bach organ piece, he was playing a Liszt piano piece. Good for him for knowing the difference.
The inner voices were beautifully clear, in the main. The music was beautifully and thoughtfully sculpted. This playing reminded me of that of an older Russian, Grigory Sokolov.
And the fugue, that ingenious thing? It began subtle, ingratiating, and beautiful—and stayed that way. Now, I would have preferred more body out of the piano. Something a little more solid. The fugue was slightly too slinky and sinuous for me. But Trifonov had his own way, and a fine way it was. (Fine way on a Steinway?)
Moreover, I admire him for playing this piece. Let me tell you why. When I was coming of age, music such as Liszt’s transcription was verboten. It was impure, gaudy, a Romantic travesty. All honor to this young man for embracing this music. I get a kick out of his getting a kick out of it.
By the way, Carnegie Hall had its first performance of this particular Liszt transcription in 1893. The pianist was Paderewski.
Next on Trifonov’s program came the holy of holies: Beethoven’s last piano sonata, No. 32, in C minor, Op. 111. This raises two questions. 1) Should a person so young as Trifonov be playing this sonata? Shouldn’t he be old and wizened before attempting it? And 2) Shouldn’t Op. 111 be the last thing on a program? Nothing can follow it, right (including an encore)?
The truth is, I have heard young men play Op. 111 well and old men play it badly. The question is not so much one of age as of wisdom. Of course, the two may be linked. As for the second question, Op. 111 ended the first half of the program—we had a break, an intermission, after—so that was kosher.
From young Trifonov, the opening of the sonata was very well defined. It was also very well pedaled (which can be a tricky business). Trifonov made many beautiful sounds in this first movement, of course—beautiful sounds are virtually his specialty. He seems incapable of banging, incapable of making an ugly sound. (I wonder whether he could work up some harshness for Prokofiev.)
Some of his passagework was labored, which was surprising. This kid has a major technique. Some of his rubato—his license with time—struck me as wrongheaded. He was even a little sloppy, in some of his playing. Yet here was a gifted young man loving a great piece.
At the same time, he was not afraid of it. Do you know what I mean by that? He did not approach the music with trembling awe. He relished it, and played it like a man—not a wispy angel. You can hear fear or hesitation in playing. Usually, this is no good.
There are two movements in Op. 111, the opening one (which has two sections) and the Arietta. Trifonov took very little time before beginning the Arietta, which was commendable: It made musical sense.
The main question for the Arietta, I think—any performance of it—is, “Did it cast a spell?” For me, it took a while last night. Some of Trifonov’s playing in this movement was a little clumsy. It was short of purity, and of singing. Beethoven marks this movement cantabile. He calls for simple singing. Sometimes, Trifonov did not live up to this direction.
By the end of the piece, the spell did take hold—at least for me. The final pages were especially effective. Here was a man in balance: balanced in his mind and in his hands. I’m talking about Trifonov. Of course, Beethoven is in balance too. In fact, the Arietta is one of the highest examples of the balance I’m talking about.
Just as Trifonov finished, a cell phone rang, repeatedly. That might have spoiled the atmosphere. Strangely, from my point of view, it did not.
The second half of the program was devoted to one piece, or series of pieces: Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes (the twelve of them). The performance of these pieces, complete, is a feat of stamina. Also, Trifonov put on a feat of technique—his is stupendous.
He has wet spaghetti for arms, enabling him to do anything. There is no tightness, no tension, no restriction. Nothing gets in his way. He played the etudes with “unseemly ease,” as they say. In fact, I was wondering whether he was making them look too easy. Would he get credit for his stupendous technique? Did people realize he was not playing the slow movement of a Clementi sonatina?
Some of the etudes were better than others. Permit a generalization: Anything leggiero, soft, or nocturne-like was wonderful. Anything requiring a big, bold, virile sound was less wonderful. In this, as in other things, Trifonov resembles another young pianist, Yuja Wang.
Oddly enough, she is playing her own recital in Carnegie Hall tomorrow night.
Now and then, I was dying for more character and variation from Trifonov in the etudes. A certain sameness set in. But Trifonov has a clear affinity for these pieces. He knows them well, and he has a Romantic spirit.
For many years, different pianists have been labeled “The Last Romantic.” We have had ten, twenty, thirty Last Romantics. There will never be a last one. The Romantic spirit is unkillable. Kids come out of conservatory—or enter conservatory—with it.
At this point, I would like all Liszt lovers to cover their ears—because I’m going to knock the Transcendental Etudes, a little. I find them musically unsatisfying, as a set. Unnourishing. Even wearisome. They offer a platform for technique, no doubt. Otherwise . . . (I think of an old line: “Did Liszt get paid by the note?”)
So, what do you play for an encore when you’ve played an hour of encores—namely the Transcendental Etudes? Daniil Trifonov sat down and played a piece I did not recognize: a Romantic piece in A major, beautiful and singing. Trifonov was entirely reasonable in it, letting it be simple, for one thing. The piece dreamed in a lovely uncomplicated way.
This morning, I consulted the Carnegie Hall press office: an item from Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies, Op. 38, namely “Alla Reminiscenza.” Tuck it into your repertoire, if it’s not already.
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Massive Paisley. Designed by Maharam Design Studio (2007). Via.
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This week: Distilled wisdom, contemporary design, and a monumental shame.
Fiction: The Wall: A Novel, by H.G. Adler, Peter Filkins, trans. (Deckle Edge): The third work in Adler’s Shoah trilogy (published posthumously in German), The Wall is now available in English. Like his first two novels, Adler based The Wall on his own experiences in the Holocaust and his postwar life, but avoids detailed historical specifics. The book tells the story of Arthur Landau, a survivor of a wartime atrocity, a man struggling with nightmares and memories of the past, including ones of his deceased wife, as he strives to forge a new life for himself. He tries to publish an account of the war, but those who did not go through it do not sympathize with him. He moves to “Metropolis” and begins a new family in the hopes of regaining some of his humanity. It is near impossible to tell where Adler ends and his protagonist begins. This stream-of-consciousness novel is a valuable look into how one survivor survived after the Holocaust. –RH
Nonfiction: Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, by Will Durant (Simon & Schuster): This final and most personal work from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Will Durant was discovered thirty-two years after his death, though he alluded to its existence several times while still alive. Twenty-two short essays cover a range of topics: from religion and morals to sex and art. The book serves as a distillation of wisdom from a distinguished scholar, rendered in elegant prose. —CE
Poetry: You Must Remember This: Poems, by Michael Bazzett (Milkweed): Bazzett’s debut collection of free-verse poetry has been described as “a book of unnerving wonders, one in which improbable events are narrated with strange intimacy, lucidity, and sly wit.” A promising first book. —CE
Art: Re-opening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (December 12): The nation’s only museum devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design, Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s design museum, will open the doors of its home in Andrew Carnegie’s Fifth Avenue mansion to the public this Friday after a three-year renovation. On view will be ten inaugural exhibitions—including the first long-term installation of Cooper Hewitt’s own wide-ranging collection. —JP
Music: Le Nozze di Figaro (through December 20): ?Four performances remain this season of Mozart's comic masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro, including two this week (Monday and Friday). ?I heard the second cast when they stepped into their roles last Thursday, and they are magnificent. Mariusz Kwiecien gave one of his finest performances as the philandering Count Almaviva, while Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Serena Malfi were dazzling in their company debuts as the Countess and Cherubino. Richard Eyre's new production, which opened the season back in September, is an attractive and nimble piece of work that elegantly frames Lorenzo Da Ponte's comedy. —ECS
Other: Alberto Giacometti Drawings: An Intimate View (through January 18): The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture is displaying the twentieth-century Swiss artist’s drawings in various media, rendered on everything from newsprint to the pages of books. The pieces are on loan from the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. A panel discussion with the exhibition curator (and frequent New Criterion critic) Karen Wilkin, the Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing at the Whitney Museum, Carter Foster, and the artist Susannah Heller will take place this Tuesday, December 9, at 6:30 PM. —CE
From the archive: On the first day of holiday... : On dismaying disappearances from Junior’s dictionary.
From our latest issue: A monumental shame, by Bruce Cole: The former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and current member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission explains how the plans for an Eisenhower memorial on the National Mall have taken a shameful turn.
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The New York Philharmonic had a guest soloist on Saturday night: Alisa Weilerstein, the American cellist. Readers of The New Criterion are well familiar with her. I have, for many years, called her one of the greatest instrumentalists in the world. Indeed, one of the greatest musicians.
Her concerto on Saturday night was the Dvorak. Some years ago, I did a public interview at the Salzburg Festival with a famous cellist. I asked him whether he ever got a little tired of playing the Dvorak concerto. He seemed shocked and scandalized by this question. Indeed, offended by it. Well, then.
Dvorak wrote his concerto in the 1890s. I wonder whether he knew he was writing the No. 1 concerto in the entire cello-concerto repertory. Let’s see, what’s his competition?
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms—they wrote no cello concerto. So that’s them out of the way. Schubert didn’t write a concerto for anybody. Mendelssohn, no. Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, no.
Haydn, yes, of course—two cello concertos. Schumann wrote one. Not nearly his best piece. The best that can be said for it is that it’s better than his violin concerto. Some twenty-five years after Dvorak, Elgar wrote his own cello concerto. Shostakovich would write two. And then there’s Prokofiev’s marvelous “symphony-concerto.”
But I believe Dvorak remains champeen.
The scheduled conductor with the New York Philharmonic was Christoph von Dohnanyi, the veteran German. He was indisposed, however, and replaced by a young Pole, Krzysztof Urbanski. He is the reigning maestro in two different cities: Indianapolis and Trondheim (Norway). He has kind of spiky, kind of punk hair. He holds his baton in an unusual position: high and straight. More about him later.
Let’s talk about Weilerstein’s playing of the concerto. It was very good, of course. But I will pick on it, for a movement or two. Much of her playing in the opening Allegro was sloppy and unfocused. She used too much portamento too early, in my judgment. She was turning the concerto into a slidefest. Who does she think she is, a trombonist?
In the early part of the middle movement, there was too much rubato, as Weilerstein was stretching, stretching. The music did not sparkle or move, from either the soloist or the orchestra. But then we got to the unaccompanied bit for cello—and here Weilerstein was marvelous. She rendered this portion like the slow movement of a Bach suite, Romanticized.
For the Finale, Urbanski chose one tempo. And, when she came in, Weilerstein set another—a faster one. And she played this movement superbly. Her musical judgment—her musicality, her je ne sais quoi—came to the fore. Her technique was on display, too. She played one of the tightest trills you’ll ever hear. And she played some of Dvorak’s phrases so poignantly, you almost winced.
Bear with me on this one: Near the end of the piece, there’s one of the most interesting, most ingenious, most effective notes in music—a D natural, after many D sharps. (I’m talking about concert pitch.) Weilerstein played it just right. She didn’t highlight it. She didn’t need to. It highlights itself, just by being. At the same time, she wasn’t too matter-of-fact. As I said, just right.
Maestro Urbanski did a creditable job. He used no score, by the way, which is fairly unusual for a conductor in a concerto. And I should single out some players.
Anthony McGill, the clarinet, came through. He is new to the Philharmonic. He has been in the opera pit for a long time. Does he appreciate playing these Dvorak licks, after so many years of Barbers and whatnot? (But I shouldn’t guffaw: There is plenty of good clarinet music, and great clarinet music, in opera.)
Sherry Sylar, the oboe, was outstanding, too. She made her beautiful sound and demonstrated her pliancy. She is one of the most stylish players in the orchestra, I think. When Joseph Robinson left the orchestra, in 2005, I was rooting for Sylar to become principal. Didn’t happen. But you can still hear her, now and then.
Also, the principal horn, Philip Myers, had a very good Dvorak concerto.
Alisa Weilerstein played an encore—the slow movement of a Bach suite. What can I tell you? It was slow, Romantic, inward, impassioned, prayerful, holy, intense. It was sublime. Perfect. Just about the best thing I have heard all season.
Weilerstein is very well educated. To begin with, both of her parents are renowned music teachers. But believe me, you can’t teach what she has.
After intermission, Urbanski led the orchestra in more Dvorak, the Symphony No. 7. I will make just a few remarks about it. Urbanski used no score, of course. (If you don’t use one in the concerto, you don’t use one in the symphony.) His reading was sensible. Urbanski was very relaxed on the podium. Self-assured.
Here is a criticism of his reading: It was a little undifferentiated. By that I mean, it was generally loud and blowsy. More variation in dynamics, for example, would have been welcome.
Here is a tip o’ the hat: Urbanski took very little time between movements, preserving the momentum and sense of the symphony, which was wonderful. Too few conductors do this. There is too much time between movements.
Finally, I feel a little guilty about Philip Myers and the rest of the horns. In my “New York Chronicle” for the next issue of the magazine, I have a paragraph of lamentation about the horns—at least about their performance in one (recent) concert. In the Dvorak Seventh, they played like angels. Crossed me up.
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Jessica Grové and Matt Dengler in The Underclassman; photo by Richard Termine via playbill.com
Not everybody’s sophomore year would make for a compelling drama. But don’t tell that to F. Scott Fitzgerald—miraculously, he managed to turn his own sophomore slump at Princeton into This Side of Paradise, the novel that would launch one of the most celebrated literary careers that America has ever seen.
The Underclassman, a presentation of the Prospect Theater Company which finished its run at the Duke on 42nd Street last Friday, draws on the spirit of Fitzgerald’s breakout work, only with the redacted autobiographical material restored. Gone are many memorable scenes, including the unforgettable exchange that forever cast “all Harvard men as sissies...and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.” But Fitzgerald’s crisp wit, and the dull, nostalgic glow of Princeton in the 'teens remain in this entertaining—if not entirely coherent—new musical.
The characters, by and large, are capably written, and convincingly played: Matt Dengler as a benignly self-interested Scott Fitzgerald, Piper Goodeve as his old flame Marie, and Billy Hepfinger as campus lit mag editor (and future literary critic) Edmund Wilson. Jessica Grové in particular was impossibly charming as the recalcitrant debutante Ginevra King, the young Fitzgerald’s would-be romance (and, in later life, recurring muse).
The musical is at its absolute best when its composer and lyricist, Peter Mills, allows it simply to be what it is—a period piece. Most of the work’s numbers lie musically somewhere between Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and the rhetorical fireworks of the lyrics are riotously funny, filled with playful internal rhymes, first-rate wordplay, and gentle satire. “Improvising,” a flirtatious duet between Scott and Ginevra, modulates from G to A to B-flat, all the way back to G, each line beginning with an excellent pun on the new key (..."we'll be flat broke"...).
Things unravel a bit in the second act, which tries to inject more drama into the plot than it can take. Moreover, several of the numbers here sink into generic Broadway-modernism in a way that is entirely at odds with the spirit of the rest of the piece (the whole production, in fact, began with that same tinkling chord that has started seemingly every musical to go up in New York in the past decade). And if I can have one last stuffy music-critic gripe: All of the performers were miked. It’s standard practice, sure, but the Duke is a 200-seat theater; why use an intimate black box space if you’re just going to throw away the intimate experience of hearing real, live voices?
Still, there was so much to enjoy in this quirky piece that it makes one excited to see what else Mills will come up with if he can resist the urge to imitate his contemporaries. According to his bio, he’s currently working on a musical called The Honeymooners—it’s unclear whether that’s a tip of the cap to the classic Jackie Gleason sketch, but that would certainly seem like a worthy subject for someone with a talent for period comedy.
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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